Arts + Culture

Blackface At The Tate: Artist Larry Achiampong On Britain's 'Others'

"I was depicting the experience of being treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin" Interview with British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong

A man dressed in a sharp grey suit glides into view of the patrons at London's Tate Modern Gallery. They turn and stare as he, accompanied by a woman dressed in pink Americana, walks towards the gallery’s Picasso Wing. He will sit there for an hour, balancing on his shoulders a head which entirely covers his own. The head is big and round, its blackness punctuated only by a pair of crimson lips.

This is Larry Achiampong, a British-Ghanaian artist who uses a range of media to reinterpret the visual and aural archives that he has inherited. In the past Achiampong has delved into  the sounds of his upbringing by Ghanaian parents to create mixtapes Meh Mogya (My Blood) and its follow up More Mogya. Some of his most arresting visual works are digitally manipulated family photographs. In these, he overlays the faces of loved ones with the black head and red lipped motif that he calls "cloudface." His Tate performance piece brought cloudface to life for the purposes of the group show Project Visible

In photo-form, Achiampong's "Cloudface" is jarring.  The intimacy of the family portrait, an index of black survival in a hostile 1980s Britain, is interrupted by the derogatory iconography of blackness that we associate with blackface performance, golliwog dolls and the pickaninny caricature. But this interruption serves an important purpose: to remind a forgetful British public about Empire, colonialism and its more domestic forms of racism, too. In Achiampong's words "just because Golliwogs and Blackface are not paraded in the way they were in the past, it doesn’t mean the world has thrown that type of mentality to the dust. I think in the UK we are quite guilty of sweeping moments like these under the carpet in the hope that no one will unearth them.”

This is a crucial moment to unearth them. In recent months the UK Border Agency has unleashed officers on train stations to stop and question people about their immigration status based on race and accent. Dawn raids continue unabated and the official discourse around immigration throbs with xenophobia, despite the very real human costs of European border policy. With his performance, Achiampong aimed to think  "the experience of being categorized and treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin and my origins." Placing this overdetermined body in full view, Achiampong also calls our attention to the ongoing and relentless processes by which some people are marked as expendable, disposable and ungrievable "others".

Okayafrica: Can you describe your performance piece at the Tate Modern? 

Larry Achiampong: I brought the original cloudface character (from the 'LEMME SKOOL U' series) to life. He walked through Tate Modern from level 0 to level 2 and into the 'Poetry and Dream' display rooms. He then proceeded to one of the spaces containing painting and sculpture by Pablo Picasso and sat extremely still (resembling the original image) on a chair against one of the white walls for an hour. Following this the cloudface stood up and left the galleries via the same route.

OKA: What did you aim to communicate and did you want or anticipate audience engagement? 

LA: I've created a few performance works that have been presented to large groups of people in the past (see 'Jam in The Dark') and whilst one imagines the event in advance there is no real way of anticipating how the viewer will respond to the work, nor should I want to unless it is actually part of the performance — I think you lose a certain energy. In terms of the cloudface performance it was not necessary to directly interact with the audience in an overly animated manner — cloudface's approach to the situation was to keep things minimal, including movements, pace and gestures. Cloudface's presence alone was enough to garner attention from the audience.

OKA: There’s a fascination with audio and visual archives at the centre of your work. Why are you so interested in archives or looking at the past?

LA: I grew up at in a moment where the library as a physical place was very important for generating and disseminating information that you were unlikely to find anywhere else — the internet was not yet readily available to the masses in the way that T.V. was, so growing up with that aspect of society still very much intact I believe that interest in the archive, the story and the narrative naturally rubbed off on me.

The projects 'Meh Mogya' and 'More Mogya' came out of my interest in the audio archive, it's connections with one's heritage and how the classic sounds of highlife music might be re-presented today. I made certain that by producing these works they would be presented in the form of vinyl records to keep the dignity of the highlife legacy intact — additionally, the works are also available as downloads which is important to share ideas and information. That beauty of current technologies is that you can effectively spread a message using very little means.

200 libraries were shut across the UK in 2012 and that figure is set to increase to 300 in 2013. My generation is probably going to be the last to truly experience the library as a physical environment that you can visit in the UK. Don't get me wrong, I am hugely fascinated by what new technologies can bring with regards to instant on-demand information. But that tactile, intimate connection to a book draws me close to the mysteries contained within a text. It’s a different experience to reading via a backlit screen. The same goes for sound — the ritual that involves taking a vinyl out of the sleeve, placing it on the record deck and aligning the stylus with the groove... that ability to observe the artwork and liner notes. I mean, you can't do that with an mp3 can you?

I like the idea of digging something up that is hardly heard or talked of because history has forgotten. It allows me to have a conversation that reveals its relevance through my intervention with the material. I want to have important, necessary discussions regarding life, the human condition and, of course, I want to have fun whilst I'm making art. If I don't enjoy it I tend to put it to the side.

OKA: Going back to the black head with red lips, or, cloudface - can you talk about your choice to work repeatedly with this motif? Does it also come out of the archive? 

LA: When I first introduced this iconography in 2007 with the series 'LEMME SKOOL U' I hadn't figured out a name for the motif. I was interested in depicting the experience of being categorised and treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin and my origins. I instinctively used photoshop to create this very simple avatar and when I would present my work to young people they’d refer to it as 'cloudface.' I like the way young people interpret art — they apply a beautiful, creative, naivety that is usually lost by the time they reach adulthood — and they aren't afraid to share these ideas. The reason behind my choice to continue to use this iconography is simple: it ‘s very relevant to the sociopolitical discussions taking place in and outside of the UK.

OKA: Cloudface brings to mind the golliwog and blackface. Is it your intention to evoke those allusions? Why impose that racist history on such personal images?  

LA: The cloudface was partially inspired by the experience of seeing the Robertson's Golly mascot on marmalade jars as a child during breakfast and other family meals. In my youth, I always associated the Golly with what an alien might be. When designing cloudface I did further research on the Robertson's Golly character and found out that it was only discontinued in 2001, the company apparently retired the character not because of it's racist connotations, but that the company wanted to 'move with the times.' My inspiration for cloudface also comes from comics and anime; 'V' (from Alan Moore's 'V for Vendetta') in particular his Guy Fawkes mask (made famous through the Occupy Movement) and also Laughing Man from the Ghost in The Shell Series. By mixing these various elements I want to have a lasting relevant conversation about prejudice in it's many guises. Just because images of Golliwogs and Blackface are not paraded in the way that they were in the past, it doesn't mean the world has thrown that type of mentality to the dust. I think in the UK we are quite guilty of easily sweeping moments like these under the carpet in the hope that no one will unearth them. Stare at a clown long enough and the jokes begin to disappear. I work with images that include my family as a starting point for telling a story that will open up and become less about the singular moment and more about plural debates.

OKA: How did you find the images that you used in the Glyph series? And how did your relationship to the people in the photographs influence how you used the images? 

LA: The images are from family photo albums — we have so many — and most if not all of the people in the images are relatives. I wanted to reveal the interior/exterior event. In some of the images people pose as if they are advertising a suit or dress in a catalogue. I asked my mother about the poses and she told me that at the centre were notions of the individuals’ pride and self-respect. My mother would send these images with letters back home to Ghana letting the family know that all was well.

OKA: What was your experience of performing at Tate Modern? What were you hoping to communicate with your performance and what was the reality of the audience response? 

LA: It was the most unique experience I've had presenting a performance to date — wearing the mask/helmet required special breathing and meditation techniques that I practised with the help of youtube videos! Being under that helmet there was a cocktail of stifling, euphoric, blinding and exhilarating moments. One of the biggest thoughts that I had both before and during the performance was the possibility of failure — I knew that I was taking some risks with this performance and that it might not have been effective or successful... I could have passed out! To have all of these feelings and emotions churning through my body it was an enormous challenge for to stay as still as possible during that hour. But sometimes it is necessary to take some risks in order to bring something new, interesting and meaningful to the table. I couldn't tell you what was actually going on during the performance since I couldn't see a thing through that helmet but I did ask some people that I'd invited, what they thought of the work — there was a mixture of responses; surprised, uncomfortable, and overall fascination.

OKA: Why did you choose to stage the performance in a room full of Picasso? 

LA: When I was planning the performance I instantly knew that by way of introducing him (beyond the original photograph work), in order for cloudface to thrive he needed a foundation within one of the gallery spaces that resonated most with him. That seated moment during the performance simply would not have been as effective without allowing the surreal, bold tendencies that exist within his visage to communicate with specific artwork that was nearby. I scanned all of the galleries for that adequate vantage point of execution. The room that held work by Picasso spoke in a way that the other rooms couldn't, both on a formal, conceptual and even cultural level.

OKA: It seems a lot of your work interrupts or disorientates by placing the out-of-the-ordinary within the accepted or ordinary...

LA: It must have been the endless hours of playing Super Mario Bros. videogames in my youth... I'm fascinated with the potential of providing an alternative outlook to that which might seemingly be mundane in order to spark up worthwhile conversation. The Evening Standard newsstand works offer a good example of the heist-like activity that I conduct in my practice. In order to challenge the the status quo I intervene on a current state of affairs with a parallel universe type of story, something that might have a science fictional or comical edge which I then inject onto the newsstand headlines, but beyond the words there is something else going on. For some people life is about accepting, following and tolerating, for others it is about questioning that which exists. I participated in a group show a few years ago in Liverpool - when the show ended I had a flick through the comments book and noticed that an attendee had left a message for me reading "Larry Achiampong does my head in. I'd like to do his head in!"

Video of the full performance

Selected images from Larry Achiampong's "Glyth Series"


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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